Giving the fundamentals of card magic in 10 essential books could be determined an unnecessary task. Clearly, many have succeeded without some of these resources, and others have all of these things and have not made much progress whatsoever. It is not necessary to learn every sleight, or principle. Magic, as Ricky Jay has oft mentioned, can be astonishing to the viewer with very little effort on the part of the person doing the magic. In a half hour, the new magician can appear to have unfathomable powers and the ability to affect the universe in impossible ways, due to the fact that most of the work was previously accomplished for the amateur by the ingenious creators of necessary apparatus or knowledge who came before him.
It is really a matter of figuring out your motives. If you want to be able to entertain at parties, fool some friends, become a sleight of hand expert, or be knowledgeable about any other aspect of the art, discovering what your goals are and moving towards them is really the main thing.
However, having a solid understanding of the fundamentals is paramount to deciding which path you will take and give you criteria with which to judge your progress and guide you away from making any silly mistakes. Here are the 10 books I recommend that will give you a firm grasp of the fundamentals, the ability to effectively judge the material you come across in the future, and the knowledge about various facets of our art to help you make informed decisions about the direction you will take your magic.
Card College Vols. 1-5 by Roberto Giobbi
This is the best set of books on card magic extant. Mr. Giobbi takes you through every aspect of the art in a very thorough manner, from the different parts of the hands to the most difficult sleights. It is not infrequent for me to have collated a number of tips from very disparate sources, only to find that Mr. Giobbi’s write up not only includes all of the brilliant touches it took me so long to find, but many more. Get these and you will be much more likely to be learning the best methods, so you won’t find yourself having to unlearn inferior ones.
Additionally, Mr. Giobbi also offers a set of books on self-working card tricks that is also recommended!
Magic and Showmanship by Henning Nelms
This is one of the best theory books around, and it really drives home the fact that a thought out presentation can really improve your effects many, many times over. Learning one new effect may make your repertoire a little better, but a little theory, intelligently applied, can make every one of your effects better.
The Dai Vernon Book of Magic, Inner Card Trilogy, Vernon Chronicles
Dai Vernon spent nearly a century studying magic with a fervor possessed by only the most dedicated practitioners. He knew and interacted with many of the best names of the era and studied the effects of the greats that came before him. You will learn some of the best handlings of the best effects and sleights of all time, tips on improving nearly every sleight in your repertoire, stories, words of wisdom, and much more. Most importantly you will gain a deep understanding of cards, sleight of hand, and magic effects that will give you the ability to distinguish between when something is being improved or is simply a novelty, what really works, why you do something a certain way, when to use sleight of hand or subtlety, and so much more.
Carneycopia by Stephen Minch
John Carney is one of The Professor’s greatest students as well as one of the best exponents of natural sleight of hand in the world. This book carefully and thoroughly explains John Carney’s philosophy towards magic and the effects he has created using these principles. I feel this book is a must read, just so you can realize how much thought can go into your magic and the astonishing results that come from those efforts. This book will give you the high watermark that you can strive for with your own magic.
Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel
I learned about this book from Bill Kalush, who mentioned it in an interview he did for MUM magazine. It was his answer to how to learn the pass. Basically, if you ever want to attempt any of the more difficult feats of sleight of hand, you are going to need to learn not only the best methods, but how to practice effectively. This book will give you a strategy for learning that will not only give you the desired results but also the right mindset for accomplishing something difficult, effortlessly and naturally. With this knowledge, even “the most critical observer would not even suspect, let alone detect, the action”.
“Secrets of the Magus” by Mark Singer, New Yorker 1993
This is an in-depth article on Ricky Jay, undoubtedly one of the great masters of the art. It is free on his website, although the picture in the print edition, gives a nice visual perspective to the piece. This is on the list because I think it is a great example for respecting the art, your mentors, creating and living up to a persona, and secrets. Just as importantly, I think the descriptions of the effects included in the piece are of great interest. When the article appeared, some magicians were upset that the descriptions were highly embellished and the effects were impossible. However, I have found many of the effects in print, and the only thing missing is a strong character, confidence, and proper build up and staging of the effects to turn them into these miracles. Figuring out how Mr. Jay does this and how you can do it yourself will be one of the greatest lessons you ever learn, no matter which direction you choose to take your magic.
The Expert at the Card Table by S. W. Erdnase
This is the bible of card magic. Read it many times. Even if you are a beginner, read the introductory portions and try to understand as much as you can, and also learn the overhand shuffle and its uses. Shuffling is one of the most natural things you can do while secretly maintaining, controlling, and organizing playing cards, and this is a very versatile and casual shuffle for those activities. As you progress in your card handling proficiency, this will still be your bible. Go back to it often. This is where you will learn how to handle cards naturally and in such a way that your audience “would not even suspect, let alone detect, the action”.
Sleight of Hand by Edwin Sachs
I feel that even someone studying only cards needs at least one general magic book, just to get a cursory knowledge of the vast number of principles and subterfuges that can be utilized in order to deceive an audience. This is one of the best, and it is a classic. You will learn some excellent card related items and discover a vast array of salient advice. Other great methods and effects may prove helpful when improving and developing your material, as well as when you encounter something unexpected.
Memoirs of Robert-Houdin by Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin
Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin is the father of modern magic, and his autobiography is one of the most inspiring stories you will read about the art. My hope is that this will excite you about being a magician and drive you to put your best efforts into your studies, practice, and performance.
Revolutionary Card Technique by Ed Marlo
Ed Marlo was one of the most card obsessed people that ever lived and he spent a lifetime creating magic. Luckily for us, he was also maniacal about writing it all down. This is a collection of chapters he wrote on various aspects of card handling. You will learn more about the different ways to handle cards, principles, etc. and come to realize just how much thought and energy has been put into the craft from this book. Additionally you will find a lot to inspire your own experimentation and get some insight into how sleights can be varied to fit your own style and also the venue that you are performing in.
Well, they were not quite all books or even single books, but I think it is a pretty good list. There are a lot of things missing, but if your goal is to really just have ten books (perish the thought!), I think you could really just get away with the Card College books, and, if you find you don’t like those, I think learning card magic from books is probably not really your cup of tea. Regardless, I hope you found something of value and that you continue to study magic and work to be the best you can!